By Melissa Miller, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
Kelly Bean wrote How to Be a Christian without Going to Church as a response to her experience as part of a ministry couple for many years. She says, “Over time, though, I became discontented; I sensed that God was much larger than the limitations, politics, and theology represented by the church I knew.” She became what she calls a non-goer, a Christian who does not go to traditional church regularly, and instead started discovering other ways to express her Christianity. Bean was looking for a “balance of knowing Jesus as the One who is wholly present even when the night is long” and knowing that her “feelings were of value” and she didn’t have to wear a “happy mask” – she no longer felt that church was meeting those needs. Throughout the book, Bean talks about similar reasons so many others have chosen to leave the traditional church. Bean says that non-goers are also “done just joining” and want to heed the “call to go and be in new ways”. She also states that church leaders had gained too much power and control and were using the Bible as a way to limit women and others from feeling like a vital or valued part of the work.
The book is full of examples of alternative ministry outlets, projects, mission work, and methods of spiritual formation. Her ideas of expressing a Christian faith without the limits of traditional church-life include home church models, intentional communities, pub gatherings, monthly community sessions, small Bible studies, missional travel, neighborhood fundraisers, and methods of personal reflection. She discusses children and youth groups that function in or out of homes on alternate schedules rather than buildings each Sunday. Bean tries to paint a picture of how Christians can find a true sense of community and belonging without the “top heavy” traditional church structure that expects much of one and little of many.
In various chapters, Bean tackles traditional church activities or functions and provides alternatives – including the pay and financial support of initiatives and/or leadership. She asks readers to reframe their thinking about tithing to “finances integrated with faith”. Bean shares that some groups of non-goers will “pool money and provide a small stipend to a community member to serve in a chaplain-like/cultivator role” and, in the process, free up much of the traditional funding needs of churches to do more good work instead of maintaining buildings or elaborate programs. Her approach calls for leaders and ministers to be open to a bi-vocational model where they would likely earn incomes from various sources. Further, she calls for all non-goers (leaders or participants) to “commit to encouraging each other in simplicity and living modestly so they can work fewer hours and have more time to give to what matters to them” – e.g. living intentionally as a non-goer Christian that can find ways to support a non-traditional model of church-living.
The key for Kelly is intentional living. She feels that current traditional churches are needed because they can be part of “leading the shift from ‘going to church’ to new, life-giving practices of ‘being church’”. She wants Christians who have left the church, but not their personal faith, to see and find a new kind of church that empowers everyone to take part and does not depend on attendance and membership as metrics.
Evaluation & Opinion
Kelly Bean is right on point in talking through the biggest reasons people have left their churches but not their faith. The number of “churchless Christians” has risen because the majority of churches have either pushed aside, devalued, or overworked their congregants. People want to experience their faith without the grading-standards of activity in a single congregation and most of them have been disappointed by the inward-focus of churches.
That said, the most challenging part of Bean’s model is her call to do-it-yourself Christianity. Don’t like the setup of traditional churches? That’s fine, create a new setup on your own. While I fully agree with Bean on the notion that amazingly meaningful things can and should happen outside of our church buildings, I think her model runs the risk of being self-expiring. Meaning, if one or two “leaders” step up to form an alternative form of ministry, worship, or education and it does take off, eventually more leadership is required. That grows easily at first but at some point the people serving in leadership roles possibly begin feeling overworked…then what? I believe she is trying to create an environment where most ministry happens within small groupings of 50 people or less and where the leadership is shared or rotates. I can follow that; I think many people are seeking that sense of close community. However, our human nature might not follow that pattern forever – the model she gives matches more closely the growth model immediately following Jesus’ resurrection and we know how history played out.
My other concern with Bean’s model is that it asks for a lot of personal responsibility, which is not necessarily a bad thing! We should desire to be active participants in our faith and our world. Nonetheless, I wonder how many people will read this and think “Wow, that is a lot of work. I think I’ll just keep reading my Bible at home, pray on my way to work, help my neighbor when they need it, and reflect on God’s love when I look at a sunset.” Sometimes we are beaten down and broken, and we need to know there is some place for us to go where we can just sit and soak in the presence of God. For many, that is the back pew of a church they attend often or rarely.
Theologically, Bean’s approach ruffles my feathers because it still feels very based in works – it still calls for attendance and participation in or with things regularly to ‘prove’ one’s status as a Christian – instead of allowing non-goers to experience Christ and their faith through grace alone and without outward obligations.
“When we seek out healthy support and tend to our own broken places, we are part of making the world a better place.” This is true, but we cannot always do this effectively as a DIY project. The “church” of the future needs to be a both/and model of traditional churches and new ministry projects – neither are sustaining without the other.